Chapter no 6

Hidden Pictures

I’m a pretty lousy swimmer. Growing up, we had a public pool in our neighborhood, but during the summer it was always a zoo, hundreds of shrieking screaming kids standing body-to-body in three feet of greasy water. You couldn’t do any laps; there was barely room to float on your back. My mother warned me and my sister not to put our heads underwater because she was afraid we would get pinkeye.

So I’m not looking forward to Russell’s new exercises. It’s after ten o’clock the following night when I finally head out to the pool. The Maxwells’ backyard is a strange place after dark. We’re just a stone’s throw from Philadelphia, but at this time of night it feels like we’re miles deep into the rural countryside. The only light comes from the moon and the stars and the glowing halogen lamps at the bottom of the pool. The water is an eerie neon blue, like radioactive plasma, casting strange shadows on the rear of the house.

It’s a warm evening and it feels good to plunge into the deep end. But when I surface for air and open my eyes, I could swear the forest has moved forward, like somehow all the trees have crept closer. Even the chorus of crickets seems louder. I know it’s just an illusion, that the new angle has flattened my depth perception, erasing the twenty feet of grass between the pool fence and the tree line. But it weirds me out, anyway.

I grab the edge of the pool and warm up with five minutes of leg kicks. Over at the big house, all the downstairs lights are on and I can see into the kitchen, but

there’s no trace of Ted or Caroline. They’re probably sitting in the den, drinking wine and reading books, which is how they spend most evenings.

After I’m warmed up, I kick off the wall and start with a sloppy freestyle stroke. I’m aiming for ten laps, out and back, across the length of the pool. But by the middle of the third, I know I’m not going to finish. My deltoids and triceps are burning; my entire upper body is woefully out of shape. Even my calves are tightening up. I dig deep to finish the fourth lap, and halfway through my fifth I have to stop. I cling to the side of the pool, struggling to catch my breath.

And then—from the forest—I hear a soft crack.

It’s the sound of a person putting all their weight on a dry branch, pressing down hard until the wood splits. I turn toward the trees and squint into the shadows and I can’t see anything. But I hear something, or someone—soft footsteps padding across dry leaves, walking in the direction of my cottage.…

“How’s the water?”

I turn around and it’s Ted, opening the gate to the pool, shirtless and dressed in swim trunks with a towel slung over his shoulder. He exercises in the pool several nights a week but I’ve never seen him out this late. I paddle over to the ladder and say, “I was just getting out.”

“No need. There’s plenty of room. You start down there and I’ll start here.”

He throws his towel on a chair and then steps off the edge of the pool—dropping into the water without flinching. And then on his signal we start swimming in parallel lines from opposite ends of the pool. In theory we should only pass each other once, in the center of the lanes, but Ted is crazy-fast and after a minute he laps me. His form is excellent. He keeps his face submerged for nearly the entire length of the pool, so I’m not even sure how he’s breathing. He moves like a shark, barely making a sound, while I thrash and flail like a drunk cruise ship passenger who’s fallen

overboard. I eke out another three laps before quitting. Ted keeps going, another six laps, and finishes beside me.

“You’re really good,” I tell him.

“I was better in high school. We had a terrific coach.” “I’m jealous. I’m learning on YouTube.”

“Then can I offer some unsolicited advice? You’re breathing too much. You want to breathe every other stroke. Always on the left or right, whatever feels more natural.”

He encourages me to try it, so I kick off the edge and cross the pool using his suggestions. The results are instantaneous. I’m breathing half as much and moving twice as fast.

“Better, right?”

“Much better. Any other tips?”

“No, I just gave you my best advice. Swimming is the only sport where coaches yell at you for breathing. But if you practice, you’ll get better.”


I grab the pool ladder and climb out, ready to call it a night. My swimsuit is riding up and I reach down to tug it back into place, but apparently I’m not fast enough.

“Hey, go Flyers,” he says.

He’s referring to the small tattoo at the base of my hip. It’s the wild-eyed face of Gritty, the furry orange mascot of Philadelphia’s NHL team. I’ve been careful to keep it concealed from the Maxwells, and I’m angry at myself for slipping up.

“It’s a mistake,” I tell him. “As soon as I save the money, I’m getting it lasered off.”

“But you like hockey?”

I shake my head. I’ve never played. I’ve never even watched a game. But two years ago I became friendly with an older man who had an abiding love of the sport and ready access to prescription pharmaceuticals. Isaac was thirty-eight years old, and his father played for the Flyers back in the 1970s. He’d earned a lot of money and died

young and Isaac was slowly squandering his fortune. There were a couple of us living in Isaac’s condo and crashing on his floor and occasionally sharing his bed and basically I got the tattoo to impress him, with the hope that he’d think I was cool and he’d let me keep hanging around. But the plan was a bust. I had to wait five days to remove the bandage, and in that time Isaac was arrested for possession, and his landlord chased all of us back into the streets.

Ted’s still waiting for me to explain.

“It was stupid,” I tell him. “I wasn’t thinking clearly.” “Well, you’re not alone. Caroline has a tattoo she wants

to get rid of. She went through an artsy phase in college.”

This is a nice thing to say, but it doesn’t make me feel any better. I’m sure Caroline’s tattoo is extremely tasteful. It’s probably a rose, or a crescent moon, or a meaningful Chinese character—not some freakish googly-eyed monster. I ask Ted where she’s hiding it but I’m interrupted by another loud crack.

We both turn toward the forest.

“Someone’s out there,” I tell him. “I heard them walking around earlier.”

“Probably a rabbit,” he says.

There’s another crack and then a quick panicked thrashing, the sound of a small animal darting across a forest.

That was a rabbit. But earlier, before you came out, the noise was louder. It sounded like a person.”

“Maybe it was teenagers. I’m sure these woods are popular with high school kids.”

“It’s worse at night. Sometimes I’m lying in my bed and it sounds like they’re right outside my window.”

“Probably doesn’t help for Mitzi to fill your head with strange stories.” He winks. “Caroline told me about your encounter.”

“She’s an interesting person.”

“I’d steer clear of her, Mallory. All this business about so-called energy readings? Strangers parking in her driveway, knocking on her back door? Paying in cash? It feels shady to me. I don’t trust her.”

I sense that Ted hasn’t spent much time in the company of psychics. Growing up, I had a neighbor, Mrs. Guber, who read tarot cards in the back of the local pizzeria. She was legendary for predicting that one of the waitresses would win $100,000 on a scratch-off ticket. She also consulted on marriage proposals, adulterous boyfriends, and other affairs of the heart. My friends and I called her The Oracle, and we trusted her more than the front page of the Inquirer.

But I don’t expect Ted to understand any of this. The guy won’t even acknowledge the existence of the tooth fairy. A few nights ago, Teddy spat up a loose molar, and Ted just reached into his billfold and pulled out a dollar—no mystery, no fanfare, no late-night tiptoeing into the bedroom to avoid detection.

“She’s harmless.”

“I think she’s dealing,” Ted says. “I can’t prove it, but I’m watching her. You need to be careful around her, okay?”

I raise my right hand. “Scout’s honor.” “I’m serious, Mallory.”

“I know. And I appreciate it. I’ll be careful.”

I’m opening the gate to the pool, ready to leave, when I realize Caroline is walking across the yard, still dressed in her work clothes, carrying her notebook and a pencil. “Mallory, wait. Did you get a phone call yesterday? From Teddy’s school?”

Immediately, I realize I’ve messed up. I remember the call, and I remember writing the principal’s number on a slip of paper. But then Teddy walked into the kitchen with his weird drawing, and I must have been distracted.

“Yes—the principal,” I tell her. “I have the message in my cottage. It’s probably still in my shorts. I’ll go get it—”

Caroline shakes her head. “It’s fine. She just emailed me.

But I could have used the message yesterday.” “I know. I’m sorry.”

“If we miss a single deadline, Teddy will lose his spot. The kindergarten class has a waitlist with thirty names on it.”

“I know, I know—”

She cuts me off. “Stop saying ‘I know.’ If you really knew, you would have given me the message. Next time be more careful.”

She turns and walks back to the house, and I’m shocked. It’s the first time she’s really yelled at me. Ted hurries out of the pool and rests a hand on my shoulder. “Listen, don’t worry about it.”

“I’m sorry, Ted, I feel awful.”

“She’s mad at the school, not you. They’re drowning us in paperwork. Vaccines, allergies, behavioral profiles—this stupid kindergarten application has more pages than my tax return.”

“It was an honest mistake,” I tell him. “I wrote down the phone number, but I was distracted by something Teddy gave me.” I’m so desperate to make things right, I start describing the drawing to him, but Ted just talks over me. He seems anxious to get back to the house. I can see Caroline’s silhouette in the sliding glass door, watching us.

“She’ll cool off, don’t worry,” he says. “Tomorrow she won’t even remember.”

His voice is relaxed but he walks away in a hurry. As he crosses the yard, his form flattens into a silhouette—and when he reaches Caroline, he puts his arms around her. She reaches for the light switch, and after that I can’t see anything else.

A little breeze kicks up and I start to shiver. I wrap my towel around my waist and walk back to my cottage. I lock the door and I’m changing into my pajamas when I hear the footfalls again, light steps treading on soft grass—only this time, they’re right outside my window. I pull back the

curtains and try to peek outside but all I see through the screen are the slimy wriggling moths.

A deer, I tell myself. It’s just a deer.

I close the curtains and turn off the lights and get into bed, pulling the blankets up to my chin. Outside, the thing moves right behind my bed—I can hear it moving on the other side of the wall, inspecting the cottage, circling the perimeter, like it’s searching for a way inside. I curl my fingers into a fist and bang on the wall, hoping a good loud noise will spook it away.

Instead, it ducks under the cottage, scratching at the dirt, squeezing itself beneath the floorboards. I don’t know how anything can fit down there. The building can’t be more than eighteen inches off the ground. There’s no way it’s a deer but it sounds big, like it’s the size of a deer. I sit up in bed and stomp on the floor to no avail.

The thing just burrows deeper and deeper, wriggling itself into the center of the room. I stand up and turn on the lights. Then I climb down on all fours and listen, trying to follow the noise. I pull back the rug and discover a square outline cut into the floorboards—an access panel large enough for a person to crawl through. There are no hinges or handles, just two oval-shaped slots allowing someone to grab hold of the panel and lift.

I guess if it were earlier in the evening—and if Caroline wasn’t already mad at me—I might call the Maxwells and ask for help. But I’m determined to fix the problem on my own. I go to the kitchen and fill a plastic pitcher with water. This thing, whatever it is, can’t be as big as it sounds. I know noises can be deceiving, especially in the dark, especially late at night. I kneel on the floor and try to lift the panel, but it won’t budge. All the summer humidity has expanded the wood, locking it into place. So I apply all my force to one side, pulling with both hands, ignoring the pain in my fingers, the sharp dry wood cutting into tender skin. Finally, with a loud pop and a cloud of gray dust, the panel

springs out of the floor, like a cork exploding from a champagne bottle. I grab it and hold it close to my chest, using the panel like a shield. Then I lean forward and peer down into the hole.

It’s too dark to see anything. The earth below is arid and lifeless, like ash left after a campfire. The cottage is silent. The creature, whatever it is, has vanished. There’s nothing to see down there, just mounds of gray dust speckled with black spots. I realize I’ve been holding my breath, and I exhale with relief. All the noise from yanking open the hatch must have frightened the thing away.

But then the ash moves and the black spots blink and I realize I’m staring at the thing itself—rearing up on its legs to meet me, baring ugly pink claws and long sharp teeth. I scream, a full-bodied shriek that pierces the night. Then I slam down the panel and throw myself on top of it, using all my body weight to barricade the hatch. I hammer the edges with my fists, trying to force the warped wood back into place, but it no longer fits. Caroline is at my cottage within a minute, unlocking the door with her key. She’s dressed in a nightgown and Ted is right behind her, shirtless, wearing pajama bottoms. They hear the noises under my cottage, the thrashing beneath the floorboards.

“It’s a rat,” I tell them, and I am so freaking relieved they’re here, that I’m not alone anymore. “It’s the biggest rat I’ve ever seen.”

Ted takes the plastic pitcher of water and carries it outside while Caroline puts a hand on my shoulder, calming me, assuring me everything is going to be okay. Together we turn the panel ninety degrees so it fits back into the hatch, and then I hold it steady while she stomps the corners back into place. Even after she’s finished, I’m afraid to move from the spot, afraid the panel will fly out of the floor. She stands beside me, holding me, until we hear a splash of water through the open window.

A moment later, Ted returns with an empty pitcher. “Possum,” he says, grinning. “Not a rat. He moved pretty fast but I got him.”

“Why was it under her cottage?”

“There’s a hole in the lattice. On the west wall. Looks like a tiny section rotted off.” Caroline frowns and starts to say something but Ted is way ahead of her. “I know, I know. I’ll fix it tomorrow. I’ll go to Home Depot.”

“First thing tomorrow, Ted. This thing scared Mallory to death! What if she was bitten? What if it had rabies?”

“I’m fine,” I tell her.

“She’s fine,” Ted says, but Caroline is unconvinced. She stares down at the hatch in the floor. “What if it comes back?”

Even though it’s nearly midnight, Caroline insists that Ted go get his tool kit from the big house. She insists that he drive nails through the hatch into the floorboards so that nothing can ever force its way into my cottage. While we wait for him to finish, she boils water on my stove and makes chamomile tea for all three of us, and afterward the Maxwells stay a few minutes longer than necessary, just to make sure I feel calm and relaxed and safe. The three of us sit on the edge of my bed, talking and telling stories and eventually laughing, and it’s like the scolding about the phone call never happened.

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